15

Death of a Welfare Project

EVEN IF the Trustees had found colonists who believed that “the Board will always do what is right,” they would have failed, for they would have set up a docile principality instead of an enterprising colony.

The colonists were also cursed by the universal ills of bureaucracy: pettiness, arbitrariness, corruption. The rations promised to settlers “on the charity” were kept in storehouses and were dispensed by men who could not resist using some supplies for their own purposes. There was, for example, the case of Thomas Causton, whom Oglethorpe had left as bailiff and storekeeper of the colony in 1734. Having the power to give or to deny supplies, he became one of the most hated men in Georgia. No one in Causton’s unenviable position could have satisfied both his London employers and his Georgia wards, and it was not long before he was the butt of assorted accusations: bad beef, short rations, profiteering, and bribery. Most of these accusations seem to have been well-founded, but because Causton, as deputy of the London Trustees, possessed the power of government he could prevent his own punishment.

The most basic, most ill-conceived, and most disastrous of the Trustees’ plans concerned the land. Fifty acres of Georgia pine-barren proved insufficient to support a family. Yet the work of clearing the trees and of planting the crops was more than enough to occupy an able-bodied man assisted only by his family. Whether a people more ascetic, more industrious, or more heroic might have managed is beside the point, for the Trustees had set themselves the task of colonizing a particular kind of person.

Their rigid provisions for manning the frontier had incidentally removed much of the incentive to increase the productivity of the colony. A settler who had no male heir or whose son did not want to farm the land would discover after years of labor that he was not allowed to sell his property. Why should he improve his property for the benefit of the Trustees? Since settlers were supposed to be soldiers in “Frontier Garrisons,” each exchange of land was a matter of governmental policy, to be approved in London only after proof that it served the public interest. The records of the London meetings are full of quibbles over the transfer of fifty-acre parcels.

The Trustees came to discover that they had assumed a responsibility they could neither fulfill nor abandon. Each enforcement of their system seemed to make every later exception more unfair. In 1738, for example, the people of the little Georgia town of Hampstead, complaining that their land was pine-barren, petitioned for something better in exchange. The matter was considered by the Trustees in Oglethorpe’s house in London:

He said he knew the land at Hampstead perfectly well, and it was indeed most of it pine barren, but with pains might be rendered very fruitful as other pine land had been rendered by others; that if these people were humoured in this, there would not be a man in the Colony but would desire to remove to better land, who yet have at present no thoughts of it. That the disorder this would occasion in the Colony is unexpressible. That we ought to consider that if these men were allowed to remove to new land, they would expect a new allowance of provision for a year, which we are not in a condition to give, and the same would be expected by others.

The disgruntled colonists thus found themselves shackled to plots of unfertile land. Since the law prevented their adding to these parcels, or selling or exchanging them, the only alternative was flight.

Although settlers accepted the need for a limit on the amount of land to be held by any individual—“as it is preventive of those unreasonable, and even impolitic monopolies of land, which have greatly retarded the strength and improvement of other places”—this was far different from an enforced equality. Where, they asked, was the incentive for the industrious if not in the opportunity to better his condition? “There being many lazy fellows in the number,” a Captain Pury reported to the Trustees in 1733 on arrival from Georgia, “and others not able to work, those who work stoutly think it unreasonable the other should enjoy the fruits of their labour, and when the land is cleared, have an equal share and chance when lots are cast for determining each person’s division.”

When clamor from Georgia increased, Oglethorpe tried to convince the other Trustees that complaints came only from the shiftless and the self-seeking, the “disaffected” who had been stirred up by land-speculators from South Carolina. It was not until 1738 that the Trustees began a series of modifications in Georgia’s land-policy, regarding each as if it were a sacrifice of principle. In 1738, the Trustees permitted females to inherit land in Georgia; the next year tenants without natural heirs were allowed to will their lands; in 1740 leases were allowed and fewer improvements were required; and in the following year the maximum holding was increased from 500 to 2000 acres. Recognizing differences in the quality of parcels, the Trustees gradually allowed a freer exchange of pine-barren for more fertile land, and granted an additional fifty acres to those who had fenced and cultivated their original grants. Quit rents were first reduced, and later abolished. It was not until 1750, when the Trustees were about to give up their charter, that tenure of land in the colony was increased to an absolute inheritance. Now finally a Georgian could buy, sell, lease, exchange, or will his land like that in any of the other American colonies. But Oglethorpe remained sullen and resistant, arguing that only the strict regulation of the land had preserved the colony from invasion.

Oglethorpe was right in believing that the whole system would have to be abandoned if any part of it were given up. All the illusions had been woven together; they would unravel at the same time. For example, as soon as the size of the individual land-holding was increased, many arguments against the use of Negro laborers were destroyed and strong new arguments created in favor of allowing their importation. Larger holdings required more and cheaper labor. Year after year, colonists in northern Georgia, prodded by Carolina Negro-merchants, protested to London that lack of Negroes caused the colony’s stagnation and discontent. In London in March 1748, the Trustees resolved “never to permit the Introduction of Negroes into the Colony of Georgia, as the Danger which must arise from them in a Frontier Town is so evident; And as the People, Who continue to clamour for Negroes declare that the Colony can never succeed without the use of them, it is evident they don’t intend by their own Industry to contribute to its Success, and must therefore rather hinder than promote it.” They advised any who could not succeed without Negroes to go elsewhere. It was only two years later, in 1750, that the Trustees retreated fully; explaining that conditions in the colony had changed, they threw open the door to a slave economy.

In their plans for Georgia’s morals, the Trustees had no more success. It was one thing to pass a well-phrased Act “for Suppressing the odious and loathsome Sin of Drunkenness” but quite another to enforce it on a population sparsely spread over hills and swamps. One correspondent reminded the Trustees that poverty, distress and frustrated hopes always drove men to drink “to keep up their Courage.” Even in England most people had nothing to choose but either to be “quite Forlorn without hopes or Mad with Liquor. Now to bring them [the Georgia settlers] to a proper medium would be to give them Sound & Strong reasons to hope for better times & by degrees to humor them with proper Notions Such as are the most usefull to them.”

There were also sober objections to prohibiting traffic in rum. Because timber was the most likely export of the colony, and its logical market was the sugar islands of the British West Indies which could send back little but rum in return, prohibiting the importation of rum was in effect cutting off trade with the West Indies. This deprived the empire of needed lumber and deprived the Georgians of profitable commerce. There was also the “medical” argument: “the experience of all the inhabitants of America, will prove the necessity of qualifying water with some spirit, (and it is very certain, that no province in America yields water that such a qualification is more necessary to than Carolina and Georgia) and the usefulness of this experiment has been sufficiently evident to all the inhabitants of Georgia who could procure it, and use it with moderation.” Finally, there was the universal argument against unenforceable laws: bootleggers claimed profits which might have gone into the pockets of respectable citizens and “as it is the nature of mankind in general, and of the common sort in particular, more eagerly to desire, and more immoderately to use those things which are most restrained from them; such was the case with respect to rum in Georgia.” The enterprising Carolina rum-runners proved more decisive than any argument.

The Trustees, over Oglethorpe’s loud objections, finally beat an ungraceful retreat. In 1742, while still keeping the Act against rum on their books, they ordered their agent to cease enforcing it. Later that year they repealed prohibition, but they still allowed only rum imported from another British colony in exchange for native Georgia products.

Of all items in the plan for Georgia, the last to die was the project for raising silk. “Till the silk becomes a commodity,” a colonial official reported in 1740, “the only trade of the colony will be lumber and fresh meat to carry to the islands.” The Trustees did, from time to time, look into the production of wine, but silk—perhaps simply because they knew less about it—possessed their imagination. However intractable were the London poor to the schemes of the Trustees, the silkworms proved even more so. The fiat of London philanthropists made not the slightest impression on them. The chronicle of the Georgia silk industry was one of futile bickerings and unfulfilled hopes.

It was not surprising that raising a new and fragile product like silk proved difficult in the American wilderness. Tending the worms and winding the threads was a skilled and delicate business, but this was hardly less delicate than dealing with the temperamental Piedmontese on whom the Trustees depended for training the settlers in the art of silk culture. The first debacle involved a Nicholas Amatis who with several other Piedmontese was sent over soon after the founding of the colony. The simplest facts were hard to come by in London. Some informants reported that Amatis’ assistants had broken the silk machinery, spoiled the seed, destroyed the mulberry-trees and escaped into Carolina; others, that Amatis himself just before he died had burnt all the worms and machines because the magistrates had denied him a Catholic priest in his last illness. On Amatis’ death, instruction in silk-culture fell into the hands of Jacques Camuse and his wife, who was supposed to teach Georgians the art of silk-winding. But Mrs. Camuse was afraid to teach the ladies of the colony too well, lest her own services become superfluous.

Meanwhile the Trustees in London were exaggerating the significance of their small success. From the beginning the promoters had spent a disproportionate amount of their effort in securing favorable publicity, and they actually became victims of their own propaganda. They made a great to-do over the gown “of Georgia silk” they presented to Queen Caroline, and which she declared the finest silk she ever saw. Yet Georgia silk came only irregularly and in small quantities. As late as 1740 the Trustees heard that Mrs. Camuse had taught the people so little that, if she died, the whole art of silk culture would be lost to Georgia. The only substantial progress was made, under the greatest difficulties, among the Salzburghers who were extraordinarily industrious, persistent, and independent and who had developed some local enthusiasm for silk-culture. Of the 6301 pounds of silk cocoons produced in the whole of Georgia in 1751, all but three hundred pounds came either from Whitefield’s orphanage or from the Salzburghers at Ebenezer. And in 1741 malcontents spread the rumor in England that the silken gown presented to Queen Caroline had contained few if any Georgia threads.

In May 1742 nearly half the silkworms in Savannah died, proving that Georgia’s climate was not suited to raising silkworms. If any part of Georgia was proper for silk-culture, it would have been inland where the climate was less variable, but this was some distance from the areas first settled. Moreover, strong economic forces worked against the silk-culture of Georgia.

Economical production of silk, as the experience of other parts of the world had demonstrated, required laborers who were both highly skilled and extremely cheap—neither of which could be said of the inhabitants of the new colony. Silk-laborers were hard to find because an ordinary Georgia laborer, who could earn two shillings a day at other work, could expect no more than one shilling from working at silk. In the major silk-growing areas of the world, peasants were receiving no more than threepence a day.

Despite all this, the Trustees remained blind and incorrigible in their optimism; they still hoped to create a mulberry aristocracy. In their law of March 19, 1750 they declared that, after June 4, 1751, no one could be a representative in the Georgia Assembly who did not have at least one hundred mulberry trees planted and properly fenced upon every fifty acres of his land; and, after June 4, 1753, no one could be a deputy who did not have at least one female in his family instructing in the art of reeling silk and who did not produce at least fifteen pounds of silk upon every fifty acres he owned. When finally in 1751 the Trustees declared their intention to give up the government of Georgia and return the colony to the Crown, they listed among the reasons not the unfitness of Georgia for the culture of silk, but their lack of enough money “to give any Encouragements for the Produce of Raw Silk.” One Parliamentary opponent of the Georgia project recommended that the best cure for Georgia illusions was to require its inhabitants to drink only their own wine and to be clothed only in their own silk. But illusions die hard, and the brighter they are the longer they take adying. The production of silk in Georgia dwindled on through the days of the Revolution, when the Georgia Assembly transformed the old silk factory into a ball-room and house of worship for which it was used until it was consumed by fire a half-century later.

The government of Georgia failed too because the Trustees had burdened themselves with powers which no one could wisely exercise from London. They produced a bizarre combination of anarchy and tyranny. The worst confusion and the most irritating abuses appeared in the courts. Legislation could be made in London, but only in the Georgia courts was it applied to particular individuals. While purporting to enforce the laws of England, the Trustees had confused and combined the jurisdiction of different English courts and had entrusted their administration to amateur judges who ruled by prejudice and favoritism. Oglethorpe himself, whatever his other virtues, hardly possessed a judicial temperament; and his deputies took their cue from him. Where, the colonists wailed, were their vaunted liberties as British subjects?

Complaint increased: pamphlets, petitions, and protests followed with annoying frequency. Even the Trustees’ own agent had to admit that these protests, against every one of the major rules as well as against the spirit of the government, spoke the mind of a substantial part of the population.

As problems multiplied and public enthusiasm in England declined, the interest of the Trustees, who after all were only volunteers, also dwindled. Oglethorpe’s own devotion to the venture was hardly increased when in 1744 he was court-martialed (though fully acquitted) for alleged irregularities in his administration of the Army in Georgia. His relations with the other Trustees became uncomfortable, and he attended no meeting after early 1749. In 1742 Egmont resigned from the governing body, partly because of ill-health and partly because of the declining public support. “It is a melancholy thing,” he had shrewdly observed some years before, “to see how zeal for a good thing abates when the novelty is over, and when there is no pecuniary reward attending the service. Had the Government given us salaries but of £200 a year, few of our members would have been absent.”

The Trustees handed their charter back to the Crown and surrendered their interest in Georgia on June 25, 1752, even before its twenty-one year term had expired. A project which had been lavishly supported by individual charity and public philanthropy, had come to a dismal end.

It is uncertain just how much of the population had deserted Georgia for the freer opportunities of Carolina and the other colonies by the middle of the century. The claim of the malcontents ten years before, that only one-sixth of the original inhabitants were left, was probably an exaggeration. But many had left, and there was more than romance or malice in the notion that Georgia was on the way to becoming a deserted colony.

“The poor inhabitants of Georgia,” unhappy settlers lamented, “are scattered over the face of the earth; her plantations a wild; her towns a desert; her villages in rubbish; her improvements a by-word, and her liberties a jest; an object of pity to friends, and of insult, contempt and ridicule to enemies.” By the time of the Revolution, Georgia—the darling of philanthropists, the spoiled child of charitable London—was the least prosperous and least populous of the colonies.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!